We live in an exciting age where more and more people are standing up for their rights and demanding equal treatment at home and at work. Equal rights for all is a tremendously positive thing and necessary for our society to evolve. However, these truths do not make discrimination and harassment complaints any less jarring for employers. These complaints have serious implications for business owners. Sexual harassment is particularly sensitive in nature, and the improper handling of such claims can have substantial negative effects on the company and all its employees.
The vast majority of employers do not want their employees harassed or harmed in any way while on the job. Furthermore, no entrepreneur wants to lose the business they have worked so hard to create. After an employee files a complaint, the actions you take (or fail to take) can either protect you from liability and bad press or make your problems worse.
Consult a Lawyer
The proper course of action after someone in your company complains of sexual harassment is not intuitive. In other words, it isn’t always obvious what you need to do under these circumstances. And with so much at stake, you need help. The liability you may face if you fail to address the problem adequately can have a catastrophic effect on your business and livelihood. So it is best to contact a knowledgeable attorney as soon as possible after a worker files a sexual harassment claim. You need experienced counsel familiar with the legal intricacies involved to guide you through the labyrinth ahead and protect your business from severe liability.
The best thing you can do for your company is to have a comprehensive sexual harassment policy in place before you ever receive a complaint, as well as a solid harassment complaint procedure. You should apply the sexual harassment complaint procedure consistently so employees feel secure at work and know that it is safe to file a complaint. It should include the following:
- A commitment to taking each complaint seriously;
- A pledge to act on claims without delay;
- A procedure that protects complainants from workplace retaliation for filing a complaint;
- A method of communication to all interested parties keeping them updated on steps taken; and
- A detailed explanation of company resources available to help resolve complaints in a timely and fair manner.
It is a good idea to use your lawyer’s assistance in creating this procedure. Once established, be sure to hold training sessions where the entire company learns the process and knows what to expect.
Take It Seriously
Treat each allegation with the respect and concern it deserves. It is incredibly important to refrain from pre-judging or downplaying the situation. If you are the supervisor taking the report from a distressed employee, show compassion and a sincere desire to help. Use comforting language, and assure the employee that you will do everything in your power to help them. Then follow through with that promise.
If the alleged victim is afraid and wants to be moved to a different position or department in the company, do everything you can to protect them from their abuser. People experience a good deal of fear when coming forward and asserting their rights. Don’t let them down. Let the entire company know that if anyone comes forward with harassment allegations, you will do everything in your power to protect them from negative repercussions.
Duty to Investigate
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an employer’s knowledge of alleged sexual harassment at their workplace triggers the need for an investigation—whether the complainant asks for one or not. Here are some pointers for conducting proper investigations:
- Choose an internal or external investigator who is well-trained, reliable, and impartial;
- Keep records and document every step of the inquiry;
- Do everything possible to maintain confidentiality for those who come forward with evidence;
- Leave no stone unturned, and attempt to gather as much relevant evidence as possible;
- Do not assume that your job is to prove or disprove the allegation—you are simply investigating and uncovering facts; and
- Do your best to maintain a respectful and healthy work environment, even in the midst of an investigation.
If people become aware that an investigation is ongoing, it may affect workplace morale. Do whatever you can to maintain a positive workplace until you resolve the complaint.
Concluding the Investigation
After the investigator completes all interviews, gathers all available evidence, and resolves credibility issues, they should write up a thorough report. Then the company must determine whether any wrongdoing took place. Typically, a high-level supervisor or a small supervisory committee should make this determination after assessing the investigator’s evidence.
Taking Action and Informing the Parties
If you determined that no wrongful conduct happened, you might want to inform the complainant first. This gives them an opportunity to address the conclusions and provide any additional information as they see fit. If wrongful conduct did occur, the company must take action. Be sure to:
- Tell the victim what disciplinary actions you will take against the harasser;
- Assure the victim that you believe the discipline will stop any further harassment from occurring; and
- Assure them that if any further harassment or retaliation occurs, they should feel free to inform you immediately, so you can take appropriate follow-up action.
Essentially, you want to sincerely assure the complainant that you are taking appropriate steps to discipline the harasser and that you will not tolerate any further misbehavior. Be sure to document this conversation, and continue to check in on the complainant periodically to be sure they feel comfortable at work.
If you determine the harassment occurred, you should inform the perpetrator and take any of the following actions as appropriate:
- Discipline the harasser as the situation warrants (up to and including termination depending on the severity of the offensive behavior);
- Retrain the harasser on what constitutes sexual harassment;
- Retrain the harasser on what behavior is prohibited;
- Inform the harasser of future disciplinary actions you will take if they repeat the wrongful behavior; and
- Reiterate your zero tolerance regarding retaliation against the complainant.
After all this, document all disciplinary actions taken and place them in the harasser’s file. Be sure to keep the allegations confidential to avoid any future defamation claims.
We Are Here for You
As you can see, this is a highly complex subject, and we have only touched the surface in this article. Properly handling sexual harassment complaints protects your employers and your business, so it is not a subject to take lightly. The Smithey Law Group attorneys are here to protect you, your business, and your employees. So if an employee files a sexual harassment complaint, call us as soon as possible at 410-919-2990 or contact us online today.